Criterion Corner #14: 'Tiny Furniture' and the Future of Important Films

Criterion Corner #14: 'Tiny Furniture' and the Future of Important Films

Mar 01, 2012

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While jotting down some thoughts on the the new Criterion Blu-Ray of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, I finally decided to teach my copy of Microsoft Office the word “Mumblecore.” I half expected Clippy to pop up and say: “Looks like you’re trying to be reductive!” But that little red squiggly line was starting to mock me, and it was time to do something about it. 

I immediately regretted my decision. 

For one thing, those little red squiggly lines really brought some much-needed color to my writing. More to the point, there I was watching a film about the perils of labels and hyper-codification, and I was forcing my perfectly egalitarian computer to submit to the very thing that Tiny Furniture was warning against. My laptop had been programmed only to be precise and loving, doing its best to remind me that art exists in part to defile the narrow boxes with which we tirelessly try to organize it, and I was busy insisting that we just slap on a neologism and be done with it. It’s faster that way, and I’m behind on Downton Abbey.

This has happened before and it will happen again: I’m still trying to convince my Mac that “Squeakquel” is not a real word, but these things are tough to unlearn.

Anyway, this crisis was the precise moment at which I realized that Tiny Furniture absolutely belongs in The Criterion Collection, as worthy of its place on the hallowed roster of important classic and contemporary films as anything by Kurosawa, Bergman, or Dryer. Which isn’t to say that Dunham’s breakthrough film is qualitatively on par with the formative works of those titans, but that Ikiru is a pathetic representation of what it’s like to be a lost twenty-something in contemporary New York.

Okay, a little bit of history: Lena Dunham was born into a super cool family of artists in 1986, and I began to hate her about 24 years later when Tiny Furniture, her second feature, won top prize at the SXSW narrative film competition. There are like four good reasons to hate her in that last sentence, alone. Well... there are definitely reasons. Judd Apatow was so taken with the film that he agreed to produce Dunham’s forthcoming HBO show Girls, which premieres in April and is supposedly fantastic. Oh, and after making movies for all of 8 minutes Dunham now has a film in The Criterion Collection. 

Plenty of people have enjoyed such remarkable success so early in their careers, but Tiny Furniture was somehow imbued with the rare potential to make its every achievement feel to its viewers like a personal attack. The resentment it continues to inspire reminds me of something Jena-Pierre Gorin said of Sans Soleil: “The best art makes you think that you could do it, yourself.” To that end, Tiny Furniture might be the best movie of the 21st century. 

When Criterion honcho Peter Becker let slip at a Q&A that Tiny Furniture was going to receive a mainline release, people were up in arms (by “people” I mean “nerds,” and by “up in arms” I mean “logged into internet forums”). It’s a recession-era film about a recent college graduate who moves in to her mom’s posh Manhattan loft and mopes around in a body stocking, so some degree of resentment was to be expected. Also, it was something successful done by a woman, so some degree of resentment was to be expected. 

Here’s a small sampling of the fan response, culled from just the first page of the 16-page Criterion Forums thread dedicated to the film:

Arthur House: “Will Tiny Furniture be the first film in the Collection that was shot on a Canon 7D? // Domino Harvey: “It will be the first film in the Collection that should be shot out of a cannon.”

OldSheperd: “Wow! From what I’ve read, Tiny Furniture seems like a mish-mash of mid-twenties post-college isolation and aimlessness. That’s original.” // Jeff: “I’ve seen it, and that is unfair reductionism. Tiny Furniture is actually a mish-mash of mid-twenties post-college isolation and aimlessness as seen through the prism of a self-important, pretentious naif with a massive sense of entitlement.” 

In reply to such reactions, Lena Dunham tweeted: “Aware most Criterion enthusiasts think I give handjobs for a sport. Please just know I worship the company & am not flippant about this!” This only made things worse, as the implication that giving handjobs for sport and loving Criterion are mutually exclusive things was deeply offensive to many of us enthusiasts.

I mean, we suspected that Criterion’s partnership with IFC might result in the release of some lesser films, but this seemed egregious, as if the home video industry’s foremost arbiters of important cinema were validating the sort of casual, self-involved moviemaking that many believe is threatening the integrity of the medium, itself. In other words, the people are revolting (you said it, they stink on ice!).

More pressingly, the idea that some kid with a Canon 7D is able to join a pantheon of movie gods that shames the Oscars in value and legacy alike seemed like an attack on the institution itself, an assault on the preordained list of artists who dictate our faith in cinema, whose works we simply know to be sufficiently evident that the film is a high art worthy of our undying devotion. It’s a religious thing, really -- we know who the apostles are: they’re old and not like us. They’re allowed to posit conflicting views amongst themselves, but the gospel truth has got to be in there, somewhere. Lena Dunham comes to us like an image of Jesus found in a Corn Flake, and Criterion is asking its disciples to put that crunchy visage up on the pulpit next to the established symbols of our worship (Buñuel’s mustache, Chaplin’s mustache, Ozu’s mustache, etc...).

For many customers, they don’t even have to buy Tiny Furniture for it to infringe upon the value of the Criterion DVDs they’ve treasured for years. For them, the film’s inclusion into The Criterion Collection weakens the brand and questions their idols -- the move isn’t just a head-scratcher, it’s a genuine threat. 

This isn't an important film. It can't be. It doesn’t matter that Tiny Furniture was tightly scripted, and thus directly repudiated the signature element of mumblecore movies.Never mind that Dunham’s rigid compositions are brilliantly succinct, or that Jody Lee Lipes’  (Martha Marcy May Marlene) humble cinematography enables Tiny Furniture to capitalize on the inherent gloss of the Canon 7D, creating a cloistered Manhattan world that feels simultaneously both plastic and real.

Never mind that it’s very (scripted) existence illuminates just how useless a term like “mumblecore” ultimate is. All that matters is that Tiny Furniture doesn’t look like something that should sequentially sit on your shelf next to the Rainer Werner Fassbinder epic that inspired The Matrix, it looks like something that should be seen on Vimeo -- it looks like the kind of thing that should also be streaming above a section for comments.

It’s about a new adult named Aura who loafs around and chats with sardonic boys outside of Film Forum as she tries to find her place in a world that doesn’t seem to want her. There isn’t a growling samurai or impoverished Italian peasant in sight. The fact that said protagonist is played by Dunham herself compliments the film’s ethnographic study of narcissism, which is further abetted by Dunham’s decision to cast her real mother and sister as Aura’s family. 

All Aura wants to do, or at least all she knows she wants to do, is to post little videos of herself  on YouTube. Aura’s audience isn’t especially concerned with the artistic merits of her work, and all of the anonymous comments are about how fat she is. Her mother is a photographer who shoots pieces of tiny furniture (hey!) in her living room, and her new crush is a smarmy filmmaker who moonlights as The Nietzschean Cowboy, a YouTube character who rocks back and forth on a wooden pony while solemnly quoting the philosopher from whom he takes his name. Everyone is making art, and Dunham presents these efforts in such a way that allows the audience to freely decide which (if any) are valid. It’s all equal and democratized. Nothing is privileged, nothing is sacred. Everyone has a camera, and it’s impossible to know what they’re all doing with them. 

The film’s antiseptic spaces and consumer technology completely silence any ambient noise, as if the world exists only so far as Aura can see it. Dunham forces her audience to see Aura’s life as a free-form echo chamber, and our only recourse is to antagonize the things in her life that codify her world to the point of confusion. 

Naturally, Aura spends the entire film asking questions of the people around her, but no one bothers to answer her. On the flip side, whenever anyone asks a question of her, they immediately stop listening as soon as Aura starts to respond. Of course Aura is entitled (and during a recession) -- she has to be. The world is her oyster, but to Aura it just sort of looks like goop and organs. She’s paralyzed by all the freedoms her class and circumstance have bought her -- the entitlement is just another layer of self-deprecation. Artists aren’t just old men, anymore. Sometimes they’re not even secretly French. Our idea of important art needs to be fluid, and who better to help it get there than a frumpy young filmmaker playing a thinly veiled version of herself, slowly stripping down over the course of her movie until the penultimate scene finds her crumpled and naked in the shower of her mom’s apartment? 

You may not like Aura, and she may not like herself, but she's nothing if not a true modern artist. How do you know that you're making the right choices when there are so many choices to make? Where do you find affirmation in a culture that's so obviously struggling to figure itself out, where the only folks who seem confident are the ones who've already given up? It's an age of signifiers in search of their meaning, and sometimes just recognizing how that's reflected in the people around you can be a victory in and of itself.

Criterion embracing Tiny Furniture makes it seem as if the company is saying: “Not everything is worthy of being released by our label, but in this zany post-Hulu world we have to entertain a future where anything could be.” As Brad Bird put it: "Ratatouille" (not coming to Criterion any time soon). With Tiny Furniture, Criterion is making it abundantly clear that they're not only interested in underlining what we’ve agreed to be film at its best, but that film is worth loving because its best is forever more difficult to define.

The cinema isn’t moving towards completion but forever blooming into its potential -- Criterion will never run out of titles for their Collection so far as they’re never convinced that it’s complete. Tiny Furniture doesn’t have to be your favorite movie, you just have to allow for the possibility that it could be. Even if Tiny Furniture were the worst film Criterion has ever released (it isn’t), the mere fact that they’ve thrown their weight behind it reaffirms that the important thing about important films is that we allow ourselves to see them as such. Since the dawn of the digital age people have been saying that anyone with a camera can become the next great filmmaker -- I’m not sure if it’s happened yet, but I’m starting to believe that it could. 

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